What is an Open Online Course (OOC)?

Lately, I have been working with my colleague Gabi Witthaus on an open online course (OOC) on Storyboarding for Learning Design, which is starting on January 12, 2015. Gabi, who is a better blogger than I am, has been posting regular updates on the design process of the OOC. We are using CourseSites (a free version of Blackboard) as a platform. The plan is to release materials as Open Educational Resources (OERs) and/or Free Cultural Works (You can check out our storyboard for the OOC here. Please note it is work in progress. It is changing daily. You might even see it changing live!)

Last Saturday, Stephen Downes shared some criticism on our use of the term OOC, which has resulted in a very interesting discussion. Gabi replied (rather accidentally) via email and got an answer from Stephen. I think Stephen’s argument can be summarised as follows (his words):

In my view (and not everyone agrees with me) if you are requiring a login in order to access course materials, you are limiting openness:

– you are requiring that people give something (specifically, contact information) in order to access the material (there’s a reason Blackboard would want to force this)

– you are making it impossible for other sites to simply link to or embed the content you are sharing

– it is not accessible to search engines and aggregators

You might say that these aren’t very significant limitations. True enough. But my point is that they are limitations. You’ve created costs and barriers to the material. It is not open, at least, not open in what I would consider a meaningful sense of the word. Stuff behind userids and passwords has a very different status – a closed and presumptively private status.

Basically, Stephen argues that by having our OOC in a closed platform (like most current Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs), we are limiting openness and thus, our OOC is rather a simple OC (Online Course). In her new blog post, Gabi has expanded on our reasons to call our OOC an OOC. I am pretty sure she will publish a follow-up soon.  I would just like to emphasise the importance of agreeing on a definition of the terms we are discussing: What is an Open Online Course?


Openness is at the heart of this discussion, and I think we might be having a problem of definitions here. There are many ways of defining ‘open’. George Siemens (2013) provides a possibility by stating that MOOCs are open in terms of access, in the sense that ‘students can access the course content and participate in guest lectures without fees’ (p. 7). The Storyboarding for Learning Design course is free of cost. If we consider Siemens’s description of ‘open’, our OOC is an OOC.

Terry Anderson (2013) comments on six (!) different senses in which the concept of ‘open’ can be understood:

  1. Access students beyond geographic locations;
  2. Academic freedom and free speech;
  3. Learning content with no restrictions on adaptation and reuse (e.g., OERs);
  4. No knowledge or demographic prerequisites to enroll;
  5. Freedom to self-pace;
  6. No fees.

Terry concludes that ‘most MOOCs are open in the sense of allowing participation anywhere, to anyone and are open gratis for participation. However, they may or may not be open in the sense of allowing access to and revision of course content or in allowing and encouraging open communication of ideas and ideals. They also may or may not be open to allow continuous enrollment and student control of pacing’ (p. 2).

The Storyboard for Learning Design OOC is open in the sense that it allows participation anywhere (with an Internet connection), to anyone. People who do not want to register in CourseSites can have access to the materials and the storyboard of the course. However, they won’t be able to engage in the conversations. While discussions will be encouraged not only in CourseSites, but also in other platforms (e.g., Twitter, GoogleDocs, etc.), as far as I know all of these technologies require some sort of log in.


The term ‘online’ in this context refers to delivery happening via the Internet. Our OOC is definitely online.


A course is essentially a ‘coherent academic engagement with a defined set of learning outcomes’ (Youell, 2011, p. 4) . It usually has start and end dates. Our OOC is a course.

In summary, is our OOC an OOC? I would say ‘yes’. However, it all depends on the definition of the terms. If ‘open’ is considered as ‘not requiring a username and password’, then the course is not open, even if it is free, there are no prerequisites, materials are released under a CC licence, observers are welcome and dialogues are encouraged through different platforms. It is a matter of perspectives.


Anderson, T. (2013). Promise and/or Peril: MOOCs and Open and Distance Education. Athabasca University. Retrieved from: http://www.col.org/sitecollectiondocuments/moocspromiseperil_anderson.pdf

Siemens, G. (2013). Massive Open Online Courses: Innovation in education? In R. McGreal, W. Kinuthia & S. Marshall (Eds.). Open Educational Resources: Innovation, Research and Practice. Vancouver, Canada: Commonwealth of Learning, Athabasca University (pp. 5-16).

Youell, A. (2011). What is a course or programme or route or pathway or learning Opportunity…?  London, UK: JISC, Higher Education Statistics Agency.


One thought on “What is an Open Online Course (OOC)?

  1. A thesaurus may bring many synonyms and related words to “limitless” or “uncontrolled”, although I couldn’t find “open” as one of them:

    I guess, though, sometimes “open” is unerstood that way:

    “”Infinitely” here means “endlessly” […] The all-determining and all-encompassing basic meaning of the word “open” for Rilke is the limitless, the infinite […]”

    On the other hand and beyond definitions…. I’m not sure if not even asking for a login would be “safe” for people…. when you give your contact information you are also giving certain “control” to those who created the course to kick you out of it, which may be needed if you misbehave as human or -as sometimes happens- you are a mischievous bot…. on either case…. beyond definitions it may not be practical for an OOC to be “that open”….

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